The cold hand of dashed hopes and a mutual sense of betrayal have cast a pall over relations between India and the United States. It’s not just the bitter aftertaste of the Devyani Khobragade affair, though that lingers as well. Even before the Indian diplomat was unceremoniously arrested in New York, many analysts had concluded that the air had gone out of the Indo-American balloon. Barack Obama’s 2010 pledge that the bilateral relationship would be “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” rings hollow.
Yet, a stagnant relationship is not a condition either country should welcome. More to the point, studied indifference, let alone fractured relations, serves the interests of neither New Delhi nor Washington. A new understanding on consular privileges and immunities would help thaw relations and avoid further Khobragade-like episodes.
The first order of business for Washington should be the appointment and confirmation of a new US ambassador to India to replace the resigned Nancy Powell. Washington, in recent decades, has rung up a miserable record in naming and confirming ambassadors to important countries, including India. The Obama administration and the Senate should not dither in this instance.
If Narendra Modi becomes India’s next prime minister, as appears likely, US officialdom must also move quickly to establish a relationship with an individual it has ignored and castigated over the past decade. Many Americans remain uneasy about Modi’s possible complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots. But dealing with Modi, either as prime minister or in some other capacity, is inevitable. Sooner rather than later, Washington must recognise that ostracising Modi does not serve US interests. Fortunately, this rethinking has begun.
For many Indians, all three episodes — the Khobragade fiasco, the extended periods when the US has no ambassador in Delhi, the decade-long shunning of Modi — speak a common theme: American arrogance and double standards, a lack of respect for India and an unwillingness to treat it as an equal. This is not an accurate reading of the thinking in Washington, but it underscores the need for the Obama administration to recalibrate its approach to Delhi. But more than merely tweaking the American approach is required. Washington must re-examine the signals, inadvertent or otherwise, it sends to a variety of peoples around the globe.
India too has to up its game, since productive ties with the US are very much in Delhi’s interest. The impression has taken hold in some quarters in Washington that India either wilfully misinterprets US policy or, at a minimum, is inclined to cast US actions in the least favourable light. The media frenzy in India and the official retaliation exacted upon US diplomats in the days after Khobragade was arrested for, in essence, paying her domestic help slave wages struck most Americans as over the top, and out of all proportion to the perceived offence.
Of more lasting import, the two countries will need to work closely together as they confront a series of security challenges in both the near and longer term. Perhaps the most immediate challenge will come from Afghanistan. Regardless of whether a few thousand US troops remain in Afghanistan after this year, the reality is that the US is disengaging from Afghanistan and the resulting vacuum is likely to be messy in ways that could adversely impact Indian security. Close coordination between Delhi and Washington on the emerging situation will be essential if the blowback for India is to be minimised.
Pakistan poses another problem where effective communication between Delhi and Washington could reduce the likelihood of terrorist violence targeting Indians. Few would quarrel with the assertion that Washington has racked up a long history of misjudgements in dealing with Islamabad. But the belief apparently held by many Indians that Pakistan would meekly fall into line if only Washington snapped the whip is inconsistent with the facts and makes communication, let alone coordination, between India and the US more difficult.
Will a Modi-led government pursue a more confrontational line towards Pakistan? Or might Modi, like his BJP predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, reach out to Pakistan in an historic gesture intended to move the two neighbours beyond 67 years of hostility? The new Indian government will not need (nor welcome) advice from the US on this question, so central to India’s broader aspirations, but there can be little doubt that a conciliatory Indian approach towards Islamabad would gain favourable appreciation and backing in Washington.
China offers another opportunity for Delhi and Washington to work together, but also another banana peel for Indo-US relations. Delhi will not wish to be drawn into the middle of heightened Sino-American rivalry, should this occur, nor permit India to be cast as a junior partner to the US in a cold war with China. At the same time, many Indians are anxious about a Middle Kingdom mentality where Beijing assumes unto itself the prerogatives of a regional hegemon. The new Indian government should welcome an active and adroit US presence in the region.
There is much work ahead to recapture the hopefulness that characterised Indo-US ties seven or eight years ago. The fault for the brittleness in the relationship does not rest solely with the Americans or the Obama administration, as many in India seem to believe. Washington must better explain how India fits into the US rebalance to Asia. And Delhi must decide whether it places a higher value on strategic autonomy or on partnership with an American nation that, for all its obvious shortcomings, remains the world’s strongest power.